Monday 20 August 2018

Neil Francis: Irish rookies impress as intelligence beats belligerence

James Ryan in action Photo: Getty
James Ryan in action Photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A truly sweet victory! To the loser a pitcher of warm piss - after such an invigorating game there can be no silver lining and the winner takes all.

This was a proper Test match and it crackled and sparkled all the way to the very end. Faith and doubt played a large part but once again Ireland went to the well of renewable optimism and pulled out a performance which the nation doubted they could produce.

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. You can't learn anything when you are playing in the harbour. Ireland, including a significant number of rookies, sailed out into the open sea and found out an awful lot about themselves. Once again the level of commitment in contact was only for the bold and the brave. You could hear on the ref microphone the percussive sounds and reverberating thumps while both sets of combatants hit each other as hard as they could.

One of the most frustrating things about playing against Joe Schmidt's sides is that they control the ball so well and yesterday they practically owned it. The Welsh, as they knew they would, would have to spend a huge amount of time defending the gain-line and trying to combat Ireland without the ball. In a tight Test match to dominate possession by 70 per cent and territory by 75 per cent tells you that the score was 60-0.

It is to Wales' credit that they were looking for a try in the last 90 seconds to seal a bonus-point win. Sometimes statistics don't tell the whole story.

There was legitimacy in the question as to whether Ireland could overcome the loss of some key personnel but we should not have worried, the system can cope without even its better players. Ireland won because intelligence trumped belligerence. If you devote yourself to an idea and you execute with the sort of efficiency that Ireland demonstrated then you can beat practically anyone.

Wales were very good. They were efficient and awkward in equal measure and they were dangerous throughout. Their handling and their ability to put men away was demonstrated outside of the three tries they scored. Their problem? They just couldn't get hold of the damn ball. Ireland embraced a fair degree of risk by playing football in midfield but quite often this gambit paid off as they made significant line-breaks on a half-dozen occasions - all of them fuelled by the firm conviction that their plan was the right thing to do.

Some of their tactics while retaining possession were tiresome and didactic but there is method in Schmidt's madness and opposing teams have to be very patient and disciplined to halt Ireland legally. Wales after conceding only two penalties in Twickenham two weeks ago, conceded nine yesterday - more borne out of frustration than indiscipline and a lot of it was down to Ireland's excellence on the floor. Dan Leavy and Peter O'Mahony outplayed Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler in this regard yet the two Welsh flankers had very decent games throughout. Navidi played a magnificent role in the Welsh tries when they were chasing the game.

It looked for all the world that the Welsh bench, which was immeasurably superior to the Irish one, would creep up on the rails and nick the game at the death. Once again George North posed all sorts of problems when he came on and it took about three Irish tacklers to put him down which would leave them dangerously short on the other wing as sumptuous hands across the line got Wales back in to the game.

Jacob Stockdale had a game to remember but he was tormented in the last 15 minutes. Still he showed outstanding bravery to see Gareth Anscombe's floating pass intended for Hadleigh Parkes. When you are chasing the game you have to take risks and that pass, if it had found Parkes, could have put Ireland in deep trouble. Many times wingers come up looking for the intercept when it is not on. Many times they get lucky but Stockdale has great instinct and he timed his steal perfectly and saw it from a long way out.

There was a huge amount of whooping and hollering as he made his way under the sticks. It was a fantastic way to finish the Welsh off.

As for Ireland's rookies, this was not a match where you could be chaperoned into the game; nobody is there to hold your hand and when we moaned about the lack of Henderson, Furlong and Henshaw when the moment came for these men to perform their response was definitive. James Ryan got caught for Gareth Davies' try - other than that his contribution was immense - a solid mix of rummaging and rampaging. It was a strength-sapping game where Ryan's engine, his footballing nous and his dependability shone through.

Andrew Porter too had a really big game. He had the strength and wit to thwart Rob Evans as he slid across to try and turn the youngster inwards.

Porter is so difficult to tackle and his hands and concentration in the trenches were as good a Six Nations start as I have seen. Competitive anxiety either helps or hinders performances - in this instance the pressure to perform drove both players on. Dan Leavy's contribution was remarkable and he is such an intelligent operator. One of those players who gets better with every performance.

We thought Ireland's midfield lacked a cutting edge but Chris Farrell was food for thought for the Welsh defence. Their hands and their passing might not have been the surest but that will improve.

When Johnny Sexton runs the game the way he did yesterday you can forgive his 57 per cent kicking success if you could call it success. The outhalf's timing and consistency while striking the ball showed in some of the missed kicks. Maybe his back or leg was at him. The fervent hope is that Ireland's halves will be fit for the Scotland game. Murray's knee injury looked serious at the time and I was surprised he got up so quickly.

Ireland bossed the game with the sort of mature intelligence which is commensurate with their experience. Wales' halves, competitive and intelligent though they are, could not come close to competing with the sort of game management that the Irish pair produce on big occasions. And so on his 100th game in charge Warren Gatland leaves empty-handed. Wales will in all probability beat France and Italy at home but mid-table is not one of the aspirations that Wazza dreams of. Congratulations to both sides for their performances in a highly entertaining game that restores your faith in the game of rugby union.

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